BIOGRAPHER: Biographer James Haley illuminates Jack London's passionate belief in socialism.
A new biography of Jack London maps the life and times of a complex figure
By Sean Conwell
JACK LONDON is remembered today mainly for novels like Call of the Wild and White Fang, but he was more than a writer of great adventure tales, a point driven home by Western historian James L. Haley's Wolf: The Lives of Jack London (Basic Books, 2010; $29.95 hardcover). Like scores of biographers before him, Haley follows one of America's greatest writers from his illegitimate birth in San Francisco to his untimely death at his ranch in Sonoma County.
What makes Haley's Wolf different—and necessary—is that it reveals a Jack London who was many different things, and devotes attention to all of them. London's part in the Klondike Gold Rush is recounted by Haley, as is the Pacific voyage of the Snark. Haley also discusses London's major works and how they were colored by his experiences, but anyone looking for exhaustive literary analysis had best look elsewhere. This is a book about London's life, or rather, his "lives." To this end, each chapter represents a different facet of the man: "The Work Beast," "The Prospector," "The Celebrity" and so on. A precocious child, a factory laborer, a social activist—London was all of these things as well as the author and adventurer of legend. He was also a man of contradictions. London wasn't fond of alcohol, but virtually drank himself to death at the age of 40; he was a passionate socialist, yet spent his later life in luxury, attended by a Korean valet (who was eventually fired for failing to address London as "master"). Though clearly an admirer, Haley doesn't neglect London's unsavory side: his infidelity, his racism and at times, his mediocrity as a writer.
London's socialism, though forgotten by most, is especially important in Haley's narrative. Having lived through the terrible depression of the 1890s, unemployed or fruitlessly toiling in factories, he knew firsthand the horrors of capitalism. Unfortunately, London was frustrated time and again by a public that his craved his fiction but greeted his political beliefs with apathy or outright hostility. Undeterred, he continued to expound the virtues of socialism, even stopping to lecture in Hawaii, Tahiti and Pago Pago during his 1907 cruise aboard the Snark. Indeed, his "un-American activities" were such that the FBI opened a dossier on him years after his death.
Haley greatly enriches the story by fleshing out London's many friends, acquaintances and family members—people who helped shape his life, and in many cases are just as interesting as London himself. We meet Ina Coolbrith, the Oakland librarian (and later, poet laureate of California) who nurtured young London's reading habits; Cloudesley Johns, the postmaster of a tiny Southern California outpost who became London's first fan; and Charmian Kittredge, London's typist, travel companion, boxing partner and second wife.
Haley also shows readers the exciting stage on which most of Jack London's life unfolded, that of turn-of-the-century California. San Francisco was vastly different from today's city, Oakland unrecognizably so. Bay Area towns like Vallejo and Benicia, which today are bloated suburban eyesores, were once colorful places populated by oyster pirates and "wharf rats." Central Coast residents will find interest in Carmel-by-the-Sea's early history as an artist colony. "The Crowd," San Francisco's clique of bohemian artists, to which London belonged, began relocating to Carmel in 1905 when rising rents forced them out of their old haunts. Coincidentally, the southward migration saved many from the great earthquake that struck the following year. London and Charmian, who traveled to the city to report on the disaster, had several close calls with the fire that raged in the quake's aftermath.
The description of Carmel is charming, with London and other members of the Crowd, including photographer Arnold Genthe and London's intimate friend George Streling, gathering on the beach to sing songs and feast on abalone. London, however, never resided permanently in Carmel, preferring to stay with Charmian at Beauty Ranch near the town of Glen Ellen in Sonoma County, where he died in 1916. The site is now Jack London State Park.
Charm aside, Wolf is detailed, balanced, and above all, timely. As the gap between rich and poor widens to its greatest extent since London's time and the public is fleeced of billions by a new breed of robber baron, London remains a powerfully relevant figure, as much for his politics as for the greatness of his art.
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